What Is Passaggio And Why Is It Important?

By David L. Jones

Throughout America and Europe there seems to be the "natural sound" movement or the "natural vocalization". To someone who has never heard the word "passaggio", this might sound like a reasonable terminology. However, allow me to explain what passaggio is and why this particular concept must be addressed in order for a singer to be free vocally.

"Passaggio" is of course the Italian School word for "passage." It actually is an acoustical phenomenon which occurs from approximately B-flat to F-sharp in the head voice range. This is why Alan Lindquest describes the passaggio as the entire range of the head voice. A slight acoustical change will occur at each half-step when the throat is open and free. Some teachers describe this as "vowel alteration". Vocal science has proven that we cannot pronounce "pure vowels" above the staff or even in the passaggio area without closing the throat. I have often found that problems can arise when a singer begins to coach repertoire. He/she might be asked to pronounce "pure vowels" throughout the passaggio and above the staff. The result is a closed throat and a "throaty tonal quality". Clarity of diction is actually achieved through the freedom in the throat as the singer ascends into the higher register. Vowels must be allowed to alter in order for the throat to stay open on ascending passages.


Alan Linquest

As a singer goes into the "head voice" area, the larynx must achieve a pivoting or rocking motion. William Vennard has diagrammed this in his book Singing, The Mechanism and the Technique. As the larynx pivots and rocks, the acoustical properties of the sound are changed, thus creating its own "vowel modification" or "passaggio release". It seems inevitable that these two concepts are one and the same. However, there are vocal professionals who still claim that one can pronounce with "good diction" to the highest singing note. The truth of the matter is that if the passaggio is properly produced, the throat will become OPEN, the vowels will ALTER, and the diction will actually become more understandable than if the singer is attempting to pronounce "pure vowels" well into his/her high range. We do not usually speak exactly as we sing. Authentic resonance comes from an open pharynx or elongated vocal tract. If one does not address passaggio or vowel modification, there cannot be free sound and the throat must CLOSE.

Manuel Garcia says that a singer must have "one vowel space", meaning one open-throated space for all the vowels. The less the singer works toward creating vowel change with drastic muscular adjustment, the better the quality of sound. The psychological indication of vowel change alone will allow the proper acoustical change to occur. One of the major reasons for tight, unrelaxed singing is "over-pronouncing" within the text using "mouth vowels" rather than pharyngeal or open-throated vowels. Excellent diction is dependent upon an acoustical result of proper vowel alteration; not a muscular action of the throat muscles. If we consider ourselves to be wind instruments, then we must ask the question "does the bell of a horn change for every note or coloration or register change?" Practically everyone would agree that the answer is NO.


Kirsten Flagstad

Alan Lindquest studied with Inge Börg Iséne and Joseph Hislop, both students of Kirsten Flagstad's beloved teacher Dr. Gillis Bratt. Dr. Bratt was a throat doctor in the morning, a voice teacher in the afternoon, and an operatic baritone at the Stockholm Opera in the evening. It was Dr. Bratt who brought the concepts of Manuel Garcia to Sweden. Dr. Bratt worked with Flagstad on "cord closure," a concept which has caused much controversy among teaching professionals. Lindquest constantly warned not to "over-do" the cord closure. However, it is necessary to have good adduction of the cords in order to coordinate the pivot of the larynx and the vowel alteration. These concepts work in a coordination with proper passaggio training.

The study of the passaggio is a necessary one in order to create free-throated singing. Most singers come to me with little understanding of the passaggio and they later actually find the largest resonance factor within the passaggio. Many singers have difficulty sustaining the passaggio range over a long period. A good example of this is the role of Cherubino in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.

If a singer can achieve a free jaw and "NG" against the hard palate (tongue root wide) with the back wall of the pharynx open, they can sustain this most difficult range. It is important to remember that Garcia's concept of "one vowel" is actually the open pharynx; or the deep and open vowel sounds which are created beyond the back of the tongue. This is not to be confused with depressing the larynx with the root of the tongue. That is injurious to good singing. Without the open pyarynx, a singer will become vocally fatigued over a short period of time. The open pharyngeal throat space is the absolute "shock absorber" for the vocal cords.

Another factor in the study of the passaggio is that of holding back the breath with the sternum, intercostals, and lumbars, while allowing a small constant and even flow of air through the larynx to fuel the resonance. If a singer pushes too much breath pressure, the larynx will rise and the primary resonator (the pharynx) will close. Unfortunately, there is much close-throated singing in the professional vocal world. The major factor for this is the lack of knowledge of the training of the passaggio.

Alan Lindquest never changed his concepts from the "Old World" training; therefore, he allowed ideas to work through him which had been proven over many years. The greatest gift of passaggio training is an expansion of the size of the voice and greater vocal freedom.